Old Fashioned Homemade Pickles

Published August 2009 in Healthy Options magazine, New Zealand

Recipe for homemade lacto-fermented dill pickles.

Inya Lake PathLactic Acid Fermentation: Symbiotic Man’s Secret Ingredient for Health and Longevity

Many years ago, I worked at the Inya Lake Hotel in Myanmar which also does catering and events for the various embassies in Yangon. It was Korea’s National Day and the embassy was having a big function in the hotel ball room. While the rest of the kitchen was in the usual uproar creating the hot dishes for the buffet, I stepped into the cool room we normally reserved for ripening fruit. It was like stepping into a different world.

The Korean ambassador’s wife was orchestrating events–timid Korean ladies-in-waiting were putting various toppings for miniature pancakes into the nine sections of lacquered trays called Gujeolpan which are used for this traditional dish. Other ladies were dishing a multitude of different varieties of kimchi onto dainty porcelain platters. The atmosphere was calm and cool, almost meditative and I felt I was in the presence of a magnificent Culinary Artist as she prepared a full sense stimulating event in the tradition of her ancestors. The ladies worked fast and quiet, filling each of the sections of the lacquer dishes with precision and delicacy.

Shortly before the guests arrived the Ambassador’s Wife spoke a word and the prepared plates began to be presented to the lady. Her quick nimble fingers darted over each dish, adding a garnish here, dabbing off a spill there. As each dish was approved it was carried off to welcome the guests. I felt as if I was observing Catherine de Medici, arranging the stage for her latest political intrigue. With the last of the dishes out the door the Ambassador’s Wife and her entourage melted from view. During the whole event, the ladies worked as a unit, with single-minded focus. When their fragrant plum-blossom presence swooped from the room, I was left astounded from witnessing a well organized catering team perform a sacred traditional ritual. Nothing was left to chance and the timing was impeccable.

Kimchi is a good example of the wide variety of lactic acid fermented pickles that can be found in every traditional culture around the world. Sauerkraut and kimchi are perhaps currently the most well known in this category. The bacteria that work to create these tongue teasing treats are the famous lactobacilli which also transform milk into yogurt. Lactobacilli are among humankinds’ oldest, most faithful friends, and are ultimately just as necessary for the healthy functioning and longevity of humankind as the mitochondria are. As long as humans have consumed milk, these little guys have been helping us to digest lactose, get plenty of vitamin C, boost the immune system, support the nervous system and defend us against harmful bacteria, yeast and viruses.

These micro-organisms were humankind’s friend long before we settled from our nomadic ways. Many people also say that cultured food created human culture, since mead—fermented honey—is the first cultured food of mankind, and legends around the world say it was a gift from the gods, creating a channel for direct interaction with the gods.

Within all indigenous cultures, plants are considered to possess intelligence, awareness, and a soul. They are experienced as being able to speak with human beings and convey information about how they may be used as medicine. p 6

Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers: The Secrets of Ancient Fermentation by Stephen Harrod Buhner

There are also theories that humanity’s choice to settle into agrarian lifestyles came from the desire to create more reliable sources of alcohol. They would have had to grow grain to make the beer, and would need to make vessels and other tools in order to create sufficient quantities to last until the next harvest. Who knows, there could be something to it–humanity has been known to do crazier things than that.

The Brassicaceae family and all the varieties of cabbage in particular have a strong affinity with lactobacilli and so we find radishes, mustard greens, cabbage, swiss chard and daikons are favorite pickling vegetables worldwide. Kimchi provides a good example of how our ancestors used to live intimately involved with the cycles of micro-organisms. Many Koreans still make their own kimchi, it is a long-standing tradition in Korea and each household has their own recipe and flavor.

Pao Ladies in the Cabbage fieldPreparing lactic acid pickles is considered an artisan art and must be practiced on a personal scale. As a result, most of the sauerkraut and other pickles on our grocery shelves today are made with vinegar and are sterilized or chemically preserved in order to guarantee extended shelf life. These factory made usurpers don’t have the living organisms that are necessary to support our digestive system and enhance our wellbeing.

One of the cheapest vegetables anywhere in the world is cabbage. Cabbage is a vegetable that is highly nutritious in it’s own right, but when it is mixed with a brine made from sea salt and water and allowed to sit for 3 to 4 days the nutritional content multiplies exponentially. It is generally recommended to use organic or homegrown vegetables when making pickles because the pesticides or other chemicals on the vegetable may inhibit the lactobacilli, for the same reason non chlorinated water is also recommended. Organic cabbages are a more affordable organic food than most, but I have been making kimchi and sauerkraut with non-organic vegetables for years and they always turn out fine. Many of us can’t always afford to buy organic and it is hard to trust much of so-called ‘organic’ produce these days as the standards have been lowered.

Fortunately, for those who can’t afford those more tasty and nutritional foods, the alchemy these micro-organisms are involved in assist in whisking toxins right out of our bodies. They will also remove some toxins from foods. This has been demonstrated in the case of cassava where lactobacilli actually remove cyanide from cassava roots, allowing it to serve as an energy rich staple food. Unfortunately cabbage is another plant that has recently become a member of the Bt (pesticide inserted into the plant) group of genetically modified vegetables. As always these days, homegrown is best and the best way to preserve a harvest of cabbage is with lactic acid fermentation.

In one sense, fermentation is pre-digesting the food, while at the same time creating new nutrients. Everyone knows about the high levels of vitamin C that are produced in this process from the stories of Captain Cook and scurvy (would New Zealand have been ‘discovered’ without sauerkraut?). Other benefits include choline (lowers blood pressure, aids metabolism of fats), acetylcholine (promotes calmness, relieves stress) and the B vitamins: folic acid, riboflavin, niacin, thiamin and biotin (supports the nervous system). Lactobacilli also create omega-3 fatty acids, the antioxidant glutathione and digestive enzymes.

Not only do lactobacilli produce various tantalizing tangy flavors and an aroma termed Suavia nutriunt (nourishing perfume) by Hippocrates, but at the same time they prevent harmful bacteria such as Shigella, Salmonella and E. coli from gaining a foothold in the gut. One study termed this colonization of the mucosal cells of the intestines by these helpful micro-organisms “eco-immunonutrition.” I first read of this in Sandor Ellix Katz’s book Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods, and it sounds to me like a perfect solution for all our worlds’ ailments.

Lactobacilli and other helpful microorganisms thrive on all surfaces, therefore one side effect of growing various pickles and fermented foods is that you populate your own skin and environment with helpful and defensive micro-organisms all working to keep the harmful ones at bay, protecting you and your family. This is also an interesting model for humanity as the families of microorganisms are unique to each environment, while at the same time are connected world-wide by the same symbiotic bacteria/human co-creation for a tasty, happy and healthy existence.

Follow this link for an easy sauerkraut recipe to get you started.


USDA Guide to making fermented pickles.
Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers: The Secrets of Ancient Fermentation
Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods
Preserving Food without Freezing or Canning: Traditional Techniques Using Salt, Oil, Sugar, Alcohol, Vinegar, Drying, Cold Storage, and Lactic Fermentation

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